For some time, Bishop Marcus has been trying to encourage and facilitate a meeting between the leadership of the Comboni Missionaries (formerly the Verona Fathers) and a group of survivors who suffered sexual abuse as young boys in the 1960s and 70s at St Peter Claver College, the Comboni Order’s former Junior Seminary in Mirfield. An unreserved apology and formal acknowledgment of the abuse has to date not been forthcoming from the Comboni leadership – so the Bishop has made an apology himself, which has been described by the survivors as ‘heartfelt’ and ‘momentous’.
Men from the Comboni Survivors’ Group attended the meeting at Hinsley Hall in person and ‘virtually’ to hear Bishop Marcus speak to them ‘… from the heart as a man and a brother.’
Also in attendance via Zoom and in a private pastoral capacity were both Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Scicluna of Malta who is Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body responsible for dealing with clerical sexual abuse cases within the Church. The Survivors’ Group were told that the Holy Father himself was aware that they had not had an ‘adequate pastoral response’ from the leadership of the Comboni Order.
The survivors waived their anonymity in order to campaign for an apology from the Comboni leadership. Bede Mullen, a spokesman for the Group who still lives in the Diocese of Leeds, said this was the first time a senior figure in the Catholic Church had acknowledged what had happened to them and the pain and trauma they experienced not only through the abuse, but also through being ‘ignored’ and ‘not listened to’, which the Bishop has described as ‘a form of abuse’ in itself.
Bede Mullen explains how these childhood experiences have had devastating consequences – not only for his own and other survivors’ lives, but also for the Church.
‘At least a dozen young boys destined for the priesthood lost their faith due to clerical sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Comboni Missionary Order at their junior seminary in Mirfield in the 1960s and 70s. The initial abuse and subsequent neglect and intransigence by the Order has proved to be traumatic; resulting in broken lives leading to fractured relationships, drug and alcohol dependency and, in one case, suicide. Many of us asked where God was in all this and where was the Church’s pastoral approach to victims? It has taken over fifty years for an answer which has come from Bishop Marcus’ intervention. As a group of now elderly men we thank you for your Christian charity and compassion and sincerely hope to see this replicated throughout the Church. It’s been a long journey, it has taken decades. It is a tremendous gesture by the bishop and we are deeply appreciative of it.’
The Bishop’s Statement and heartfelt apology is reproduced here in full:
‘In preparation for our meeting today, I have spent much time praying and reflecting on how I can try to express the shame I feel both for the abuse which you suffered at a time when you were so young and trusting, and the sorrow I have for the way you have been treated within the Church since you brought this abuse to light. I also realise that my sense of shame and expressions of sorrow may well be thought to be cold comfort, too little, too late, and of little reassurance to you. I have though felt compelled to ask to meet with you, and I am humbled by your willingness to meet with me.
Although I am addressing you with the title of a bishop, I am speaking to you from the heart as a man and a brother. This is because I believe it is from the heart that Jesus Christ calls everyone who would minister in his name to reach out to the poor, and to all those who, because of their vulnerability or age, are at risk of or have been exploited or abused.
I have listened to and read some of the traumatic accounts of the sexual abuse which you suffered when, as boys, you were entrusted by your families to an education and religious formation at the St Peter Claver College in Mirfield. The men you identify as having abused you were among those people you should have been able to trust most. From the accounts you have given, not only was your innocence violated but the seeds of faith growing in your childhood were scandalously harmed, and in some cases appallingly crushed.
I know that for a long time now you have sought without success to engage in a face-to-face discussion with senior members of the Comboni Missionaries; a meeting without prejudice and not controlled by pre-conditions determined by the religious institute’s leadership. I am aware too that the unreserved apology and acknowledgement of your abuse which you have been seeking has not been given.
You have explained to me how both as individuals and as a group such a meeting would help with your healing from the sexual abuse you experienced as children. Although the College was owned by and governed by the Verona Fathers (now the Comboni Missionaries), it was situated within the Diocese of Leeds, of which I am now the bishop. I have tried therefore to encourage and facilitate the meeting which you have asked for with the Comboni leadership, but this too has not met with success.
It was for this reason that I asked to meet with you today, so that, as a leader of this local Church, I at least can offer you my heartfelt apology for the pain and trauma which you experienced when you were students at Mirfield and for the spiritual suffering and emotional distress which continues to affect you to this day.
I wish therefore here and now to apologise to you personally and unreservedly for the childhood sexual abuse you suffered, and I wish to apologise also to all the members of your families and your friends whose lives have been affected by the impact of that abuse.
Recently, Pope Francis spoke of the “catastrophe” of “the sad history of sexual abuse, and the way the Church has dealt with it until recently.” “To become aware of this hypocrisy in the way we live our faith is a grace, it is a first step we must take”, he said. The Holy Father went on to state, “In my opinion, every bishop of the Church must take it upon himself and ask: what must I do in the face of this catastrophe?” He emphasised too, that we have to apologise, “…in the face of the many historical errors made in the past, more than once and in many situations, even if we were not personally involved in that historical situation. And it is precisely this attitude that is required of us today.”
Those, like me, who have been entrusted with a ministry of leadership in the Church can only begin to contribute to the healing of the wounds of abuse if we are ready to listen with humility and a compassionate heart to those, like you, who seek to share their experiences and their sufferings with us. We must be prepared personally to sit face-to-face with you and to hear your stories. For many like you who have been abused, this response is the only way that your pain can genuinely be heard, and your dignity properly be respected. Indeed, it is the only thing that you, the Comboni Survivors Group, are now asking of us.
I hope and pray that our time together here today will give you an opportunity to personally communicate to me something of the pain which you have carried throughout your lives and that our meeting will contribute in some small way to your healing.’